Workplace

Want to avoid culture wars at work? You need a healthy 'debate culture.'

From their first day, employees at Appian are encouraged to disagree with anyone at the company — including the CEO. Here’s how it works.

​Appian co-founder and CEO Matt Calkins

Appian co-founder and CEO Matt Calkins wants his employees to disagree with him.

Photo: Appian

Matt Calkins often hears that he’s polite, even deferential. But as CEO of Appian, he tells employees to challenge each other — especially their bosses — early and often.

“I love arguments. I love ideas clashing,” Calkins said. “I regard it as a personal compliment when someone respectfully dissents.”

This culture originated with Calkins and his three co-founders, two of whom were champion student debaters before founding the cloud computing company in 1999. Today, Calkins said he still greets new employees with an invitation to express disagreement with anyone at any level of the company — including himself.

“If you disagree with somebody, especially your boss, you’re doing them a favor,” Calkins said. “You’re helping them to make their idea better. Whatever it is you just disagreed with is going to get better because you challenged it.”

Disagreement also communicates respect, Calkins said: It shows the receiver that you see them as someone who can handle criticism without getting upset.

How to promote healthy debate

This culture doesn’t work everywhere. It works at Appian, Calkins said, because of two prerequisites: respect and “an ability to resolve the debate.”

“I’ve seen companies that thought they were a debate culture, but where people didn’t actually feel like they had the standing to speak up,” Calkins said. “That’s not a debate culture. Everyone has to feel empowered.”

One way to reinforce that is praising dissent publicly, Calkins said. That’s especially true with high-level executives, who in Calkins’ experience are more afraid to challenge their superiors.

Calkins’ co-founders are still “positively ferocious” in debates. They “like to disagree with me just to make the point that they still can,” Calkins said. At one point, a debate among the executive team about which new market to get into lasted 20 hours over the course of two days in a hotel boardroom. That wasn’t normal, but neither is changing a company’s business model, which was ultimately at stake.

“Sometimes, ideas get shot down gratuitously,” Calkins said of his co-founders. “However, where we try to keep it all in bounds, I find it all constructive. I don’t think we have crazy meetings.”

‘Choose a decisioner’

A collaborative, dissent-based discussion is “like a game of catch,” Calkins said. You catch the idea, then you process and return it before throwing it back. And when you throw it back, you include your disagreement.

Catch is a “fairly disciplined activity,” Calkins said — more of a Q&A than a brawl.

“It’s not like everyone is speaking at once. It’s not like we can never agree on anything,” Calkins said. “Nobody else should get involved in that [one-to-one exchange] until that dialogue is resolved, and then someone else can become the questioner.”

Calkins has another principle for meeting management: “The number of people involved plus the breadth of the conversation, topic-wise, must equal a constant.” In other words, larger meetings need a tighter focus.

And in order to resolve debate, Appian doesn’t divert decision-making to committees.

“It’s always a person. We choose a decisioner, and they make the decision,” Calkins said. “The debate happens until we make a decision, and then we rally. That’s an essential component as well: Otherwise we’d stay a debate society forever.”

One thing Calkins hasn’t figured out: how to make dissent work virtually. The pandemic and remote work have suppressed some of Appian’s debate culture, he said.

“Unfortunately, Zoom is a dampener on really good debate,” Calkins said. “If you really want a debate, that’s a high-bandwidth experience. Ideally, you’ve got a whiteboard. Ideally, you can look at them and you can see how they’re reacting.”

It may come as no surprise that while Appian allows for remote work, Calkins is in the office five days a week.

Please argue — but not about politics

Calkins discourages political debates at work, calling U.S. politics “polarized and toxic,” and said lately he’s been particularly worried about “the radioactive nature of political debates.”

“In the company, it’s mostly demoralizing when American political debates come up, so I try to minimize them,” Calkins said. “We’re a business, so we’ve been doing business things. When we debate, we debate about our business things.”

Even in an age when tech workers increasingly expect their employers to engage in — or at least allow — social activism, it’s not unusual for big-company leaders to ask them to tone down the politics at work.

In the last two months, Meta has told employees not to post about abortion on the company’s Workplace tool because of the topic’s potential to “leave people feeling targeted based on their gender or religion,” and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong has spoken about the internal fractures that led up to his 2020 declaration that Coinbase would avoid social activism that could be both distracting and divisive.

Kraken, a Coinbase rival, has stopped short of banning office political discussions, but told employees last month that they should be “thick skinned” at work and expect some people to be offended by each other’s ideas. (Some employees have reportedly left over CEO Jesse Powell’s comments about gender and race.)

Calkins credits Appian’s culture of respectful dissent with allowing the company to avoid some of the more fractious political debates.

“We had this long-standing commitment to respect and we’ve been able to lean on it in polarized times as our guiding principle,” Calkins said. “These are inextricably linked.”

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